Are you looking for a faster way to build experience, move up in position and increase your salary? Then flying for a low-cost airline could be just the flight path you need. Over the last decade, the number of low-cost airlines has exploded with more carriers making travel accessible to the masses through budget prices. In turn, this has presented more opportunities for pilots to reach their goals by flying for low-cost airlines.
If you’ve just graduated, low-cost operations offer a tremendous opportunity and provide direct exposure to line operations and the more intensive flying patterns allow you to quickly gain valuable experience. Pilots working for a low-cost airline often fly 75-80 hours per month or more, which allows you to rapidly build the 1500 hours needed to unfreeze your ATPL or to be eligible for an upgrade to captain.
It’s not all about the hours however, it’s also about the sectors! Imagine a long-haul legacy airline first officer doing 80 hours a month, with an average trip length of 10 hours, making an average of 8 sectors. He or She will not be at the controls for 80 hours as long-haul operations require heavy (relief) pilots and allows for “bunk” (rest) time during long sectors. This means that a long-haul first officer flying 80 hours a month might only be doing 60 hours physically in the copilot seat (the other 20 hours being rest time), and only fly 2 or 3 takeoffs and landings each month.
In comparison, low-cost airlines are mostly flying short-haul routes, which means their pilots do more sectors and more take-offs and landings compared to other pilots. A low-cost short-haul pilot could also fly an average of 80 hours but, with an average trip length of stay 2 hours, this would give a total of up to 40 sectors!
This means they get to spend a lot of time “at the controls”, avoiding long cruise flying phases which, let’s face it, do not bring as much experience as ground movement, approaches and departures.
Being able to upgrade to a captain in a much faster time frame than with a flag carrier is a critical advantage for first officers. While all airlines have their own policy regarding upgrades, getting your upgrade in 5 to 6 years rather than the 10 or 15 years it takes at more traditional airlines allows you to take your new position sooner and increase your salary faster too.
Many low-cost carriers work with the principle of a fixed-pattern roster (example: 5 days on followed by 4 days off, always). This means that right now, you could already be able to work out whether you would be available for a wedding 12 months from now!
On top of facilitating social life, this also makes the commute possible for pilots who are not living near their base airport. Pilots often commute to their base airport by car on long distances, or even by plane from abroad. Fixed-pattern rosters, therefore, make the commuting much easier and bearable in the long term. More traditional airlines often work on the system of seniority, which means senior pilots get more control over their rosters (by expressing preferences) compared to the junior pilots who have little control over their rosters in the early stages of their careers. Commuting could be made completely impossible in the first few years of joining a legacy airline.
In the low-cost airline world, fixed pattern rosters are available for everyone, from the newest pilot to the next one to retire! Most low-cost carriers offer commutable contracts such as 20/10 or 5 on 4 off, so for pilots who want to live at home but work in a different country, working for a low-cost carrier is ideal.
Unlike a flag carrier, low-cost carriers often set up in several countries, making it easier to commute or you may even be lucky enough to get a home base. In any case, flying for a low-cost carrier will give you several opportunities to change base in your career, which, depending on your family situation, could well be a very positive aspect. Each base indeed has its own set of destinations, which means you could get exposure to even more airports and countries. If you decide to live locally, you will get the great pleasure to learn to live in a new country, to learn about the culture and why not even learn the local language!
On top of this, many low-cost airlines often send their pilots “out of base” for a week or two each year to compensate for a short-term lack of pilots in that base. This means they will either provide you with everything from hotel to crew transport or, they will temporarily increase your monthly allowances to compensate for the added costs you may face abroad. In both cases, this is a great opportunity to break the routine and get to discover another base and meet new people!
Flying can be a very rewarding career, both financially and in terms of job satisfaction, but it is important to know both the ups and downs of the profession. Ultimately, deciding on being a pilot for a low-cost carrier is a personal decision based on factors such as where you are in your career, where you want your career to go, and the type of lifestyle you want.
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